Culture

How an Online Series Became a Counter-Cultural Play

Mary Eberstadt
The Loser Letters, a fictional series born on NRO, is taking the stage later this month.

Here is The Loser Letters’ lead character, A. F. Christian, explaining what the series, which originally ran on National Review Online, was all about:

“It’s not like the Letters are heavy lifting. They’re not some excruciosaurus brain-busting treatise about Loser, or anything else. They just tell a little story, which is about what led me away from religion and toward our phenomenal godlessness. I’m sure everybody will find out whatever loose end in the story they’re wondering about — like why I’m taking Rosetta Stone German, how I ended up in this crazy detox run by the Director with the red cape, what finally happened with my big zero of a boyfriend, Lobo, and the rest of the details about my turn to Atheism. By the end of the series You’ll know all this and more, and no one will catch a migraine getting from here to there, pinky swear. Now back to serious Atheist business!”

Publishing The Loser Letters was in the top ten of my favorite moments in two decades at National Review. A fiction series narrated by a young atheist woman, they were creative, seeking to reach clever young people. For the clever young people who haven’t happened upon NRO and The Loser Letters, which eventually became a book, The Loser Letters are now on stage, debuting at my alma mater, the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., later this month. (Use code NROTLL for a 30 percent discount on tickets.) – KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: The Loser Letters will be on stage later this month. Why is that significant?

Mary Eberstadt: Well, Kathryn, when else has a major political website resulted in a novel, followed by a stage play? Only on NRO!

As you and I know, The Loser Letters were first born in 2008, as chapters serialized weekly right here on NRO. “Improbable” doesn’t begin to capture A. F. Christian’s online debut. A sassy young addict writing star-struck letters to the New Atheists from an institution: at a minimum, it wasn’t clear that’s what the world needed. Even so, every Friday at noon a new epistle would be posted up on NRO. We still haven’t figured out whether you’re her midwife or her godmother. But we do know that protagonist A.F. Christian wouldn’t have seen daylight without your leap of editorial faith in making room for her.

Back then, the New Atheism was riding high, and talk of God and godlessness was everywhere. The Letters were an attempt to engage that discussion from a different plane — to bring the debate down from the stratosphere and into reality, by telling the story of a twenty-something young woman and the reasons for her fascination with the New Atheism.

Then came the second improbable development: for the most part, NRO’s readers did get the Letters. Not only that, they helped by interacting with the unfolding story. After each installment, e-mails would fly in from those who liked A.F. Christian’s tale, those who didn’t, and those who offered useful criticism – all of it taken into account when the Letters were revised into book form, and published in 2010 by Ignatius Press. 

How often does an act of storytelling end up critiqued by hundreds of correspondents, responding to weekly installments, on a website known for its political journalism?

Again: NRO. That’s the first and foundational backstory behind the creation of the stage-play.

Lopez: I remember the Letters … before they were even written. Why did you always feel it needed to exist?

Eberstadt: As of the New Atheism, it became common for people to speak as if sorting out life’s big questions were a simple matter of Philosophy 101 revisited. But the notion that people are rationalists first and foremost doesn’t drill down into subterranean reality.

Of course human beings have the power of reason. But like gamblers who overestimate their winnings and underestimate their losses, we’re all prone to thinking of ourselves as more logical, more driven by pure reason, than we often are — because over-emphasizing our rational side makes us feel better about our choices and motivations.

So why do people believe what they believe?

The New Atheists, like the old, offered one kind of answer to that question. From Bertrand Russell onward, atheist apologetics has suggested that extra-logical, underlying tendencies predispose religious believers toward belief.

According to stereotype, religious believers aren’t rational; they’re backward, sexually repressed, prone to authoritarianism, and otherwise victims of their unfortunate inner weaknesses. As a Washington Post reporter put it immortally, speaking of American Christians, they’re “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.”

I wanted to flip that proposition about tendencies upside down, and ask instead: why might some atheists — or agnostics, or “anti-theists,” in the fine phrase of Henri de Lubac — believe what they believe? What extra-logical, underlying factors might encourage people to lean in toward godlessness?

That’s where A.F. Christian popped in. She embodies the notion that delusion and self-delusion are human constants, in chronic need of inspection — most especially at those moments when we believe ourselves to be driven by the purest or most logical of motives.

As her story shows, and pace the New Atheists, some people are drawn toward agnosticism and atheism not because of abstract philosophical arguments over theodicy or evolution or other familiar contentions; and not because they’re smarter than the other human beings who came before them (as per the atheist label “Brights”). To the contrary, there are other, extra-rational reasons to embrace a world without God: for one, the profoundly felt desire on the part of many people to be free of Judeo-Christianity’s unwanted rules.

The point is that if delusion and self-delusion are indeed players in the human drama, at least some of the time, then it isn’t only churchgoers and their folksy ways who invite critique. Atheism and anti-theism have long put religious belief in a petri dish, suggesting that theism is the outlier that needs “explaining.” Turnaround in the form of A.F. seemed like fair play.

Lopez: You’re opening at my alma mater, The Catholic University of America. Why there? Is the hope that it’s only the beginning?

Eberstadt: CUA is home to the beautiful and storied Hartke Theater. The University’s Theater Department, led now by Patrick Tuit, is renowned for excellence, and it’s turned out generations of outstanding graduates. When President John Garvey found out that playwright Jeffrey Fiske had come up with a script, he did us all the honor of inviting the posse to stage the show at Hartke. It’s a thrill for everybody, wherever A.F. ends up next!

Lopez: Who is A. F. Christian most effective speaking to?

Eberstadt: Any human being who has ever wished that it were possible to go back in time and do something differently.

Lopez: Do people of faith need to write more creative fiction? Do conservatives?

Eberstadt: A couple of years ago, author and editor Adam Bellow wrote a compelling piece making just that case — also published on NRO. One friendly amendment might be that it isn’t just conservatives and traditionalists who stand to benefit from more storytelling. Given how politicized the literary culture has become, everyone could use more creations that show rather than tell realities — more fiction in which political themes are secondary.

There are signs here and there that such a turn may already have begun. Tod Lindberg, for instance, known as an author of nonfiction and scholar with the Hoover Institution, is publishing an epic poem on “The Apology of Patroclus” in the October 2016 issue of Commentary. Author, critic, short-story writer, and poet Joseph Bottum has worked diverse genres for decades. Theologian and philosopher Michael Novak — whose first book was a novel, and who has also published poetry — is now at work on another novel whose backdrop is the historic flood in Johnstown, Pa., in 1889.

And after a lunch event earlier this week, where playwright Jeffrey Fiske spoke about the new stage-play to a full house of journalists and think-tankers, several guests came up afterwards to discuss the short stories and plots and poems and other creative work they hoped to embark upon.

All to the good! And there are other examples one could name too. At the same time, though, we need to be realists about why so many writers outside the secular-progressive establishment hesitate to come forward in similar ways.

One reason is that creation in any form is risky business; it’s hard to do, mostly unfunded, and easily snarked. But even more prohibitive, I think, are today’s institutional impediments.

Several essays have appeared lately, mourning the great Christian mainstream writers of yesteryear and asking where the Tolkiens and Lewises, Percys and O’Connors, have all gone. It’s a good question — and it calls forth some other ones. If Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy appeared today, producing the same religiously driven work, would any writers’ program in the country embrace them? Or artist colonies? Would their stories be published in leading magazines? Would their books be vetted by prestigious publishing houses, praised by the country’s leading literary critics, celebrated by literary kingmakers?

At best, the answer would be “maybe.” Writers in 2016 who don’t keep their religion on the down-low are at a disadvantage compared to writers half a century ago — because thanks to the New Atheism, and the new intolerance it has helped to fuel, religious belief per se is regarded as déclassé by many sectarian gatekeepers these days. And worse. Could O’Connor or Percy even lecture on certain secular campuses these days without a protest?

That’s the forbidding literary reality out there. What’s needed is not only more writing, but also a fledgling counter-establishment that rewards aesthetic risks in ways that today’s establishment does not.

The other challenge to writers in the emerging counterculture is to avoid the temptation of nostalgia as a thing in itself. It’s better to mine the past for valuables that can imported into work for the present and future than to gaze back in longing at a real or imaginary golden age. We shouldn’t be cultural reactionaries. We should be cultural counter-revolutionaries instead. 

Lopez: What does Jeffrey Fiske manage to do that takes The Loser Letters to another level?

Eberstadt: Adaptor and Director Jeffrey Fiske and the rest of the team are breaking new ground with this production in more ways than one.

First, Jeffrey has invented the character of The Shadow, played by World Champion gymnast Chellsie Memmel as a foil to A.F. Christian (Madeleine Murphy). It’s a fantastic way to bring A.F.’s interior tumult into three-dimensional form. As Jeffrey has said, “The Shadow is a non-human character, and we will present a character who moves in ways that are beyond normal human abilities.”

Second, Jeffrey and Chellsie and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili of Synetic Theater are staking out new aesthetic territory in other ways. They’re orchestrating theatrical movement that’s somewhere between mime and dance. The vision is to incorporate athletes and athleticism into the drama onstage in a way that hasn’t been done before.

There’s another feature of the production that also energizes the team, this one countercultural. The Loser Letters stage play delivers something rare: it’s a show in which female characters are front and center, and where the drama revolves around them. That’s unusual in theater, and the posse is pleased to break that ground, too.

The whole endeavor is out of the box in more ways than one — but that’s been A.F. Christian’s modus operandi all along. As of the stage play, she’s finally gotten what she wanted: a way out of the place where she found herself.

Lopez: What is your prayer for the play?

Eberstadt: In the series on NRO, A.F. threatened to stomp on your Blackberry. Let’s pray that in the play, we can keep her away from your iPad!

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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